THERE IS NOTHING new under the sun, not even the temptation to bring death to people whose lives become unbearable. Jack Kevorkian is not the first physician in Western history to cross the line from helping people live to helping people die, or the first to justify his actions in the name of mercy and dignity. The lure of euthanasia is ancient. That is why new doctors, for 2,400 years, have taken an oath to resist it.
On Monday, a Michigan jury found Kevorkian not guilty of violating a law forbidding assisted suicide, even though he had described freely and candidly how he helped end the life of Thomas W. Hyde by hooking him up to a tank of carbon monoxide in the back of a Volkswagen van. Hyde was afflicted with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a dreadful, paralyzing disorder.
Gassing sick people to death in the back of German vehicles is not a new idea, either.
Who doesn't understand why a terminally ill person suffering uncontrollable pain might welcome the escape of death? When the alternative is lingering agony with no hope of a cure or a normal life, euthanasia seems neither criminal nor immoral. To many Kevorkian's crusade is admirable; the jurors in Detroit are not the only ones who believe, as one of them put it, that "he did this to relieve this man's pain and suffering."
But is that Kevorkian's motive? The 20 people who have died in his mobile gas chamber were never patients of his. (Kevorkian is a retired pathologist, one of the few medical specializations that guarantee a physician never has to see a patient.) They had never been under his care, never received medical treatment from him. They came to him for the purpose of dying, and his only interest in them was in ending their lives -- and winning publicity for his cause.
Kevorkian, Newsweek reported last year, has written about the "value for mankind" of the Nazis' horrific experiments on human beings during World War II. He recommends that our society, too, use prisoners for medical experimentation.
Maybe it is nothing more than a curiosity that the leading advocate of assisted suicide is such a morbid caricature of a doctor. But is it also irrelevant that half of Kevorkian's -- what do we call them: patients? victims? subjects? -- were not terminally ill and facing imminent death?
Concede the libertarian principle that a person has the right to end his life or to insist that it not be prolonged by artificial and invasive medical means. It does not follow that laws against facilitating the suicide of others are therefore irrational or inhumane. If we allow physician-assisted suicide, we signal agreement that certain lives aren't worth living. That is a fundamental departure from Western law and traditional morality and one that sets us on a dangerously slippery slope.
If an assisted exit is OK for those with terminal illnesses, how can we deny it to those facing years of prolonged and racking pain? Or to those in the early stages of AIDS or Alzheimer's who fear the misery and decay that lie ahead?
What about someone whose life-despairing pain is not physical but emotional or psychic? The man crushed and humiliated by scandal, the woman whose husband and children die in a fire, the entrepreneur wiped out in a financial catastrophe -- if they decide their lives have grown unbearable and wish to die, will we deprive them of assistance?
The 20 men and women who came to Kevorkian for death supposedly chose freely to do so. But who is to say they weren't talked into it by a well- meaning friend? Or pressured into it by a selfish relative? ("You can't imagine how terrible lung cancer is, Frank; the pain is unbearable and it will be torture on your family. You should let Kevorkian end it for you now.")
Consider how much more relentless such pressure will be in a society that abandons the ancient taboo against euthanasia. Already there are governors who talk about the old having a "duty to die" and university presidents who argue that when you've had a long life and you're ripe, then it's time to go.
From the idea that some of us should have the right to be helped into the grave it is one small step to the notion that some of us ought to be helped into the grave . . . and one step more to letting some of us be pushed into the grave.
In Holland, where assisted suicide is legal, many doctors don't wait to be asked. In 1991 alone, the Dutch government reports, more than 1,000 patients who "had submitted no explicit request" to die were killed by their doctors.
Barbarism cloaked in compassion. Do we really intend to follow Jack Kevorkian down that road?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)